Hegel on the Modern Arts, by Benjamin Rutter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, xiii + 282 pp. ISBN 978-0-521-11401-1 hb £50.00


Hegel lectured on the topic of ‘aesthetics’—by which he meant the philosophy of art—several times during the 1820s and 1830s. Transcripts of these lectures provide the basic material for scholarship on Hegel's views on the philosophy of art. His intellectual background, extending back to his time as a student at the Protestant seminary in Tübingen, included significant and formative exposure to a wide range of art and its history. Hegel not only occasionally danced around the ‘freedom pole’ with his intimates Hölderlin and Schelling at the Stift, but was steeped, like them, in an intellectual culture that far exceeded what counted as the technical philosophy of the time. So, unlike Kant for instance, whose understanding of the history and techniques of the visual arts, music and literature was circumscribed both by his geographical isolation and overly abstracting interest, one often has a gripping sense reading Hegel's aesthetics lectures that the individual arts and artworks provide serious constraints on what might be properly said about them. Art is not a mere parade ground for the exercise of epistemological or metaphysical doctrines; it has a philosophical impact of its own. This is not to say that Hegel's aesthetics is devoid of systematic metaphysics—very much the opposite. The point remains, however, that the metaphysical structure of Hegel's aesthetics is expressed from within the development of art and is not an overlay upon it. Hegel's aesthetics lectures are replete with extraordinarily interesting individual cases of art criticism, revealing subtle analyses of complex works, artistic movements and taxonomic art-critical categories. In this register, one might find Hegel's true patrimony to include figures like Winckelmann and Lessing.

That much of what Hegel says in individual cases can stand on its own at a distance from his most overt systematic concerns can tempt a certain approach to his aesthetics—one that strips away as much as possible the metaphysics that drives the overall features of the account. Selecting out from Hegel sections from his thought by downplaying metaphysical features is not in itself a bad thing; one might think that it is a very good thing for certain purposes. Even as a mode of Hegel interpretation one might well regard such a strategy as playing to his strengths and, thus, all things considered, appropriate under at least some circumstances. Benjamin Rutter's Hegel on the Modern Arts certainly takes this tack and the result repays the strategy. Rutter's is a sustained and subtle treatment of Hegel's views on what was, for Hegel, contemporary art. In Rutter's hands, the more demanding metaphysical aspects of Hegel's thought recede, placing the reader in an excellent position to appreciate the responsiveness and detail of Hegel's various treatments of the several modern arts, modern art genres and individual artworks. It is important for Rutter's overall argument that he allows the specificity of Hegel's treatments to take centre-stage, for Rutter holds that the continuing relevance of modern art according to Hegel is in its ability to make ‘reconciliation’ between the world as it is and the world as it is experienced, which experience is subjectively palpable to agents.

Hegel does not deploy the term ‘modern art’; what the term is meant to capture is what one might call, in more Hegelian vernacular, ‘late-Romantic art’. ‘Romantic art’ is a technical term for Hegel that designates the last of three main stages in the development of the category ‘art’ (the name of a [Hegelian] concept or of a conceptual process). This tripartite division of art in the lectures depends upon Hegel's development of the idea of Absolute Spirit in the Enzyklopädie, although one can discern stirrings of the idea, and its application to the division of the arts, a bit earlier in his Nürnberger Enzyklopädie of 1808/09 and perhaps even, if one takes out the speculative microscope, in the so-called ‘Jena Systementwurf’ from 1805/06. Romantic art for Hegel covers an immense historical and conceptual range, beginning with Hellenistic/Roman art and ending with the art of Hegel's own time. Perhaps Hegel's most famous pronouncement on art is that, as a primarily sensuous-conceptual of form of human self-understanding, art comes to perfect pitch with the overall requirements of self-understanding at one conceptual point, realized historically in Attic Greek art, especially sculpture and tragedy. After this time, art gives way to superior modes of human self-understanding, religion and finally philosophy, and has to negotiate within its native sensuous means as much of an accommodation of the newly predominate narrative (religious) and then dialectical (philosophical) forms of self-understanding as it can muster. Art ‘ends’ with the Greeks in the sense that its essential vocation as a cutting-edge form of social self-understanding is played out. It is important to be clear here. When art ends in this sense it need not cease, nor does art ending entail that artistic progress is impossible. The only implication—although of course it is a weighty one—is that art can no longer progress as a predominate form of Absolute Spirit (i.e., as the most adequate form of social self-understanding). In fact, as discussed below, Hegel seems to believe that there is important progress in art after art's end that would not be possible until that end is reached. Art's end decided some questions of its relevance after that end, but not all such questions. This is where Rutter's treatment attaches and his threshold questions are: (1) what is the relevance of Romantic art generally by Hegel's lights, given the increasingly adequate philosophical understanding of humanity and its place in the world; and (2) what is the relevance of modern art, given the answer to (1)? Put another way: what is Hegel's understanding of the continuing viability of art?

Rutter approaches answers to these questions by, first, considering two contemporary thinkers with significant Hegelian leanings: Arthur Danto (pp. 12–4) and Dieter Henrich (pp. 9–12). In their different ways and for their different purposes, both Danto and Henrich take Hegel's main insight concerning contemporary philosophy of art to be that philosophical resources have culturally outrun art and that this fact is felt within art as a constraint on what can count as art. Danto greets this with his trademark charity and cheer: art develops to the point that it can represent its philosophical nature to itself internal to its means, just because the means become so non-aesthetic and conceptual—Danto's interpretation of Warhol is to the point. Afterwards, art is freed to be anything that can be culturally sustained. For his part, Henrich was one of the first to chart a change in Hegel's views about the future of art from the quasi-romantic optimism of his earlier work (and earlier of the lectures) to a later pessimism. But for Henrich the ‘philosophical disenfranchisement of art’, to borrow a tag from Danto, is not entirely welcome. Henrich joins the Weber-inspired contention that the modern world is too balkanized to allow art to be an overarching force that taps into its most pressing general concerns with the thought that rational argumentation is in a much better position to deliver this, if it can be delivered at all. Rutter's treatment of both Danto's and Henrich's discussions of Hegel are placed in the service of his main argument and are not meant to do ultimate justice to the theoretical importance of Hegel for either. Still, it is a bit narrow to focus, in the case of Henrich, on two articles from the 1960s, given Henrich's recent offers of systematic alternatives to the Hegelian death-knell. The treatment of Danto is somewhat more comprehensive, but again Rutter deploys him only in profile, present in the analysis to make a concise but, in Rutter's estimation, superficial claim about the prospects of modern art according to Hegel.

Rutter develops his own concerns with Hegel and modern art by focusing on two primary interpretative issues. The first of these has to do with the correct understanding of ‘liveliness’ or ‘vitality’ (das Lebendige, die Lebendigkeit) in Hegel's discussion of Romantic art and the relation of vitality to beauty (pp. 83–92). ‘Vitality’ is a term Hegel inherits from Herder and Goethe, and Hegel uses a cognate, ‘living art’, in the Phänomenologie in his discussion of art to refer to the liveliness conferred on inanimate media (i.e., the material of art) by beauty in archaic Greek art. At first ‘life’ requires actual human movement in dance; sculpture is a further refinement in which life is given a more formal role—one that is in balance with the animated material. In the lectures on aesthetics, vitality plays its primary role in Hegel's account of post-Renaissance art that no longer possesses the Classical capacity of beauty to render ‘life’ in the lifeless in full measure. The common thread running through the two accounts is that vitality is the socially cohesive factor in art, which depends on beauty as expressive of what humans bring to their most special products over and above the materiality of the objects (i.e., freedom). Vitality is crucial for Hegel's account of Romantic art precisely because having human products retain this animation in the teeth of increasingly express discursive conditions is what it at issue in modern art. Vitality persists in modern art, if it does, only by adapting art to late-modern philosophy. The native turf of modern philosophy is self-consciousness and the realization of freedom achieved through the correct relation of that to the world. Therefore, the adaptation according to which artistic vitality is preserved must involve bending the resources of art and art production in the service of a distinctively modern form of self-consciousness: on the object side, increasingly explicit conceptual art content, including an explicit awareness within art of its own nature and, on the subject side, emphasis on individual genius and freedom in audience response. As Rutter emphasizes, Hegel never expressly discounts the prospect of art to be vital in this sense. Hegel views human society as complex and as operating on several conceptual levels at once. It costs him no philosophical capital to allow that art, perhaps especially Romantic art, has an important role to play in terms of more implicit and subjective modes of responsiveness towards what would otherwise be explicit and interpersonal rational principles. One need not view this as crassly instrumental. Late-Romantic art might achieve this deepening of individual orientation towards ‘reconciliation’ by means of the pleasures of interpretation. Romantic art, so understood, might have a fair degree of autonomy relative to the conceptual level proper to it. Rutter's treatment of these issues is solid and sometimes insightful, but more attention to Hegel's underlying metaphysical views just at this point would have helped Rutter bring out his points with even greater force.

Rutter's rendition of the relation of vitality to beauty is a bit less satisfying. He asserts not only that beauty and vitality are conceptually distinct matters, but also that Hegel holds that modern art need not be beautiful—in fact, cannot be so (pp. 91–2). I have my doubts. Ascribing the view to Hegel that beauty is optional, or even inimical, to modern art would increase the apparent relevance of his views for modern art theory. Beauty in modern art is, however, a tricky business. The concept of beauty is not univocal throughout the modern period, and the claim that beauty is simply rejected, even by the most radical of the European avant-garde in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries does not stand up well to scrutiny. Even if it were correct to ascribe to Hegel the view that modern art need not or cannot be beautiful, it is crucial to recognize that his reason for holding that view, as well as his attitude towards beauty's purported demise, would not have much in common with avant-garde oppositions to beauty. Hegel would have to hold that beauty was past because it had dialectically played itself out and, so to speak, withered on the vine of art. It disappears from the contemporary view without cataclysm. This was not the avant-garde purchase on beauty, of course; beauty was seen as a threatening concept and targeted for full-throttle attack.

Notwithstanding this, it is questionable that Hegel held, or could have held, the view that beauty is not of the essence to all art. The textual basis is weak; nowhere does Hegel specifically endorse this view. Moreover, there are technical aspects of Hegel's conception of dialectic that forbid dropping beauty from the artistic story. More in keeping with the conceptual arch of Hegel's treatment of Romantic art generally, and with late-Romantic art more specifically, would be a modulation of the concept of beauty in terms of the relation that obtains in the early-nineteenth century, according to Hegel, between humankind's conception of agency and the world at large. Hegel holds that there is no longer any reason to make especially problematic the capacity of best human intentions to ‘latch onto’ the world, both because his theory of social rationality shows that the intents of other humans, suitably formed, are not inherently ethically problematic and because he pays no heed to the sceptical worry that in every individual case of ethical failure lurks a lesson to be generalized. Art is a form of self-understanding that evolves in the wake of modern philosophy into a meditation on the historical career of this rift between the human world and the world ‘in itself’. Kant's aesthetics is a case in point—there one projects for transcendental rational purposes various indemonstrable concepts of ‘purposiveness’ on the world precisely to mend (and not mind!) the perceived gap. This need removed, beauty habituates itself to the mundane world of the fully human; as Hegel puts it, beauty becomes ‘small’, a matter of the subtle shading of the internal world of the Bürger. Against the background of unalloyed Classical beauty that may not seem very beautiful, but Hegel appears to view it as a proper species of beauty nonetheless. In fact, that he sees matters in this way is in many respects what makes his views on modern art distinctive. What makes late-Romantic art ‘vital’ is the fight for its vitality and, given the necessary role beauty plays in vitality, that means a fight for beauty.

This brings me to another rewarding aspect of Rutter's book, its excellent treatment of the category of ‘objective humour’. My own view is that objective humour constitutes a ‘second end’ of art for Hegel and that there are no Hegelian resources beyond those provided by objective humour, with which one might chart the future of art from Hegel's perspective. Rutter is cautious about this ‘second end-of-art’ thesis (pp. 218ff). Although he does argue that some aspects of modern art of the nineteenth century (e.g., some elements in Madame Bovary) can be approached gainfully from the Hegelian perspective, Rutter does not go overboard in extending Hegel's reach to encompass the high avant-garde or contend that the most important aspects of modern art fall under the rubric of objective humour. In a way, the second end-of-art thesis is companionable with Rutter's main concerns. To hold that Romantic art ends in objective humour is just to say that the capacity of art to accommodate philosophy generally can go no further. It does not rule out progress in ways of making the accommodation. And Rutter does not require anything more than that concession since he does not argue for the proposition that one can extrapolate successor, more progressive Romantic art forms over and above objective humour from Hegel's own resources.

Hegel says next to nothing about objective humour, which is especially vexing given that it is supposed to be the crowning conceptual stage of Romantic art (and, thus, in a way, of art itself). What Hegel does offer are examples—the risible one of Hippel and the undeniable one of Goethe. Rutter steers a very sensible course here. Rather than attempt to tease out of Hegel's bare declarations a viable philosophical account of objective humour, he focuses on the examples and presses them for the missing substance. The discussion of Hippel is noble and well-intentioned, but is ultimately in vain. The particular bit of Goethe's corpus at issue is the West-Östliche Divan and this is much more interesting. Hegel's choice of Goethe is, strategically speaking, very telling. As is well known, Hegel harbored animosity toward early German romantics on a number of counts: some philosophical, some autobiographical and some having to do with etiquette. The distaste was leavened by Hegel's anxiety that his own views on a number of basic philosophical issues were in fact quite close to certain aspects of romanticism that he thought dangerous—a fact Hegel all but admits in the dialectical structure of several of his most important works. Rutter puts things quite aptly, then, when he writes that Hegel conceives of the category of objective humour as ‘post-romantic’ (p. 208; cf. pp. 49–62)—in this case meaning not ‘post-Romantic art’ but rather ‘post-romanticism’. Objective humour for Hegel is simply cheerful resignation to our fumbling subjective responses to the world—a close relative to what Kierkegaard will later call ‘controlled irony’. This peculiar form of Heiterkeit is expressed in the Goethe poems—a turn from ironic inwardness to accepting reminiscence. Pitting Goethe against Jean Paul might not seem a very fair fight, with objective humour clearly coming out on top of its subjective adversary, but the curious emptiness of the category underscores perhaps the greater vitality of the very romanticism Hegel was concerned to block. As it turned out, romanticism provided a superior lens through which to view the important avant-garde elements of artistic modernism when measured against Hegel's own pretty everyday bourgeois sensibilities.

The idea that art is no longer a matter of veneration, but is rather one of interpretation, is a central element of Hegel's aesthetics and a lasting contribution to modern art theory. It is perhaps unthinkable today that one would have an art movement without a simultaneously developing theoretical organ for the movement. The biographer John Richardson reports that when, in his impoverished early days in Paris, Picasso had his fill of art theorists and philosophers coming over to drink up his wine and expound, he would solemnly and silently lay a revolver on the table in front of him. It is a great story and something we all wish we could do at times, but it is pretty exceptional in the age of the manifesto. Modern art comes hand in glove with art theory and art history, and Hegel's aesthetics offers a rich and suggestive account of why that is. Hegel and the Modern Arts is an excellent reminder of the intricacy and import of Hegel's aesthetics and of the importance of continuing to consider questions of its relevance.